Updated: Rosetta Still Speaks–Not From Egypt’s Eternal Sands but in a Voice “Thro’ Vast Immensity can Pierce”

It's Just One Boring Day After Another. Photo Courtesy Zazzle.com, UK

I don’t know about you, but my life most weeks is pretty routine.  Even though I work in a setting where no two days are the same, in some respects (I never know which patients I’ll be seeing or what their issues will be) my schedule is predictable, Monday through Friday, with a night of being on-call every other week (One thing is certain, here.  If you get called in the night, it’s never good!  Chaplains don’t get called for the happy stuff at night—that’s just a given.  And with our large service area and being a Trauma II hospital, it’s a rare night I don’t get called).

With that in mind, I look to other sources to provide the unique, the unexpected, the stunning, the beautiful, the historic.  What takes my breath away? Beauty where there should only be the drab.  Inspiration from the simplest of the simple where there should only be plainness.  And historic perspectives never glimpsed by the human eye.

Lagerfeld (TM) Rose Blossom. Photo: David Waggoner

We’ve gotten used to the magnitude of the beauty of the galaxy from photos by the Hubble Space Telescope, or the Twin Keck’s on Mauna Kea’s lofty peak, or composites made possible by the digitization of multiple pictures of the same object taken in various light spectra by different space and earth-based observatories.  The robotic

Cassini Huygens Titan Montage. Photo: NASA/JPL/ESA

probe expeditions to the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, such as Galileo and Cassini, respectively, not to mention the earlier Voyagers, have so completely revised our understanding of those miniature solar systems that astronomy textbooks written even five years ago are hopelessly out of date.  In a century Mars has gone from a planet believed to have a struggling civilization, to a dusty, dead, rocky world with no potential, back to a world of potential and interesting; the search for life in space has zeroed in on it as prime suspect #1.  The discovery and confirmation of water ice, just inches below

Mars 27Aug03 at Opposition by HST. Photo: HST/NASA

its surface is reigniting the global interest to send a human crew to investigate, even though the political and economic chaos rippling around the makes the realization of that dream tenuous at best.  Saturn’s moon Titan has now been to be discovered to be so earthlike, although its rains, and rivers and oceans are of methane that astronomers are stunned and rewriting what a planet is and what an active environment can be every few months.  I could go on and on.

Rosetta Stone, 196 BCE, Disc. 1799 in Egypt. Photo: British Museum, London

The picture below fits into the category of “Historic Views Never Seen Before by Human Eyes”.  The photographer is the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Space Probe launched in 2004 whose ultimate destination is the comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which it is scheduled to reach in 2014.  Like a miniature Casinni-Huygens, Rosetta will launch a probe, the Philae Lander to the surface of the comet and gather data to be radioed back to Earth.  So it has a way to go, but is on track to make its target date.  Rosetta’s trajectory is a gravity-assisted boost cycle, circling the Sun and planetary flybys to increase its speed and set it up for its ultimate goal.

Along the way, Rosetta has encountered several asteroids, the most recent being 21 Lutetia.  This is the last asteroidal encounter before the probe is put into deep space hibernation as it flies toward the comet.

Rosetta Spacecraft Probe. Image Courtesy: ESA

Just released is one of those stunning photos, historic in that no human eye has ever seen 21 Lutetia other than as a dim dot of light, but in the distance is the grand dame of the Solar System, Saturn.  The black of space punctuated by a small asteroid—a piece of the earliest solar system—in the foreground and in the distance—massive Saturn, millions of miles distant but still unmistakable with its signature rings.  The asteroid photo, taken from a distance of  22,300 miles, shows it is approximately 81 miles on its long axis.  Such stark beauty of the very small and the massive opposite in their juxtaposition against the eternal night of deep space takes my breath away!

21 Lutetia Asteroid from 36,000 km by Rosetta with Saturn in Background. Photo: ESA

I end with these prescient verses written nearly 300 years ago by a man who could only imagine in the most rudimentary fashion the reality of deep space, but ended up describing it with a beauty in word, expressing an amazingly close reality of what we know today:

Of man, what see we but his station here,

From which to reason, or to which refer?

Thro’ worlds unnumber’d tho’ the God be known,

‘Tis ours to trace him only in our own.

He, who thro’ vast immensity can pierce,

See worlds on worlds compose one universe,

Observe how system into system runs,

What other planets circle other suns,

What vary’d being peoples every star,

May tell why heav’n has made us as we are.

by Alexander Pope, OF THE NATURE AND STATE OF MAN WITH RESPECT TO THE UNIVERSE, from The Essay on  Man, Epistle 1. 1732

21-Lutetia Close Up: An Update

The European Space Agency has released another image of 21-Lutetia taken by Rosetta at a distance (astronomically speaking) of only 1965 miles.  That’s approximately the same distance as flying from San Francisco to Indianapolis, non-stop.  Or, if you live East of the Mississippi, from Washington, D.C. to Phoenix, Arizona.

Asteroid 21 Lutetia from 1965 miles (3162 km) by Rosetta Spacecraft. Image: ESA

From Astronomy.com:

The July 10 flyby was a spectacular success with Rosetta performing faultlessly. Closest approach took place at a distance of 1,965 miles (3,162 kilometers).

The images show that Lutetia is heavily cratered, having suffered many impacts during its 4.5 billion years of existence. As Rosetta drew close, a giant bowl-shaped depression stretching across much of the asteroid rotated into view. The images confirm that Lutetia is an elongated body, with its longest side around 81 miles (130 km).

The pictures come from Rosetta’s Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System (OSIRIS) instrument, which combines a wide-angle and a narrow-angle camera. At closest approach, details down to a scale of 200 feet (60 meters) can be seen over the entire surface of Lutetia.

In Memoriam: Phoenix Lander, Discoverer of Water on Mars

Phoenix Mars Lander. Artist's Conception. Image: LibraryTechie.com

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The Tool that Made History:

The Robotic Arm (RA) is 2.35 meters (just under 8 ft) long with an elbow joint in the middle, allowing the arm to trench about 0.5m (1.6ft) below the martian surface, deep enough to where scientists believe the water-ice soil interface lies. At the end of the RA is a scoop for digging and acquiring loose soil. On the bottom side of scoop is a scraping blade for scraping hard icy soil and protruding from the backside of the scoop is a circular rasp used for acquiring icy-soil samples by pulverizing the icy soil and ejecting it into the back of the scoop for delivery to TEGA. Citation: http://phoenix.lpl.arizona.edu/science_ra.php:

Phoenix Mars Lander Robotic Arm. Photo: JPL/NASA

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Trenches with Proof of Water Ice:

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Phoenix Lander Images--Proof of Disappearing Water Ice. Photo: JPL/NASA

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Mission’s End: Mars Has Given Up its Most Precious Secret…To Date:

The JPL Press Release, 24 May 2010: PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has ended operations after repeated attempts to contact the spacecraft were unsuccessful. A new image transmitted by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows signs of severe ice damage to the lander’s solar panels.

“The Phoenix spacecraft succeeded in its investigations and exceeded its planned lifetime,” said Fuk Li, manager of the Mars Exploration Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Although its work is finished, analysis of information from Phoenix’s science activities will continue for some time to come.”

Last week, NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter flew over the Phoenix landing site 61 times during a final attempt to communicate with the lander. No transmission from the lander was detected. Phoenix also did not communicate during 150 flights in three earlier listening campaigns this year.

Phoenix Mars Lander. Photo from Orbit Confirming Irreparable Damage to the Lander. Photo: JPL/NASA

Earth-based research continues on discoveries Phoenix made during summer conditions at the far-northern site where it landed May 25, 2008. The solar-powered lander completed its three-month mission and kept working until sunlight waned two months later.

Phoenix was not designed to survive the dark, cold, icy winter. However, the slim possibility Phoenix survived could not be eliminated without listening for the lander after abundant sunshine returned.

An image of Phoenix taken this month by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment, or HiRISE, camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter suggests the lander no longer casts shadows the way it did during its working lifetime.

“Before and after images are dramatically different,” said Michael Mellon of the University of Colorado in Boulder, a science team member for both Phoenix and HiRISE. “The lander looks smaller, and only a portion of the difference can be explained by accumulation of dust on the lander, which makes its surfaces less distinguishable from surrounding ground.”

Apparent changes in the shadows cast by the lander are consistent with predictions of how Phoenix could be damaged by harsh winter conditions. It was anticipated that the weight of a carbon-dioxide ice buildup could bend or break the lander’s solar panels. Mellon calculated hundreds of pounds of ice probably coated the lander in mid-winter.

During its mission, Phoenix confirmed and examined patches of the widespread deposits of underground water ice detected by Odyssey and identified a mineral called calcium carbonate that suggested occasional presence of thawed water. The lander also found soil chemistry with significant implications for life and observed falling snow. The mission’s biggest surprise was the discovery of perchlorate, an oxidizing chemical on Earth that is food for some microbes and potentially toxic for others.

Phoenix Mars Lander. Trench Shovel Photo From Phoenix Onboard Camera. Photo: JPL/NASA

“We found that the soil above the ice can act like a sponge, with perchlorate scavenging water from the atmosphere and holding on to it,” said Peter Smith, Phoenix principal investigator at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “You can have a thin film layer of water capable of being a habitable environment. A micro-world at the scale of grains of soil — that’s where the action is.”

The perchlorate results are shaping subsequent astrobiology research, as scientists investigate the implications of its antifreeze properties and potential use as an energy source by microbes. Discovery of the ice in the uppermost soil by Odyssey pointed the way for Phoenix. More recently, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected numerous ice deposits in middle latitudes at greater depth using radar and exposed on the surface by fresh impact craters.

“Ice-rich environments are an even bigger part of the planet than we thought,” Smith said. “Somewhere in that vast region there are going to be places that are more habitable than others.”

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Phoenix Mars Lander Mission Patch. Image: UAriz/CSA/JPL/NASA

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We now wait with some impatience for the next mission to cross the great void that separates us from this sister world in hope that from an era of warmer eons, liquid water, and powered by the dynamo of the Sun’s solar engine, that the potential for life was realized.  Well done to the thousands whose individual efforts crafted this small but amazing space-faring robot, flung from our own watered world to descend onto Ares’ dry and dusty surface, scraping its frozen crust to reveal the most precious element of life as we know it: plain old frozen water.

Μπράβο πουλί του πάγου και φωτιάς

2010–The Year We Learn That Life Beyond Earth Exists?

Dr. David S. McKay, Astrobiologist. Photo: NASA

There’s a buzz out there amongst astrobiologists that before this year is out, Dr. David McKay and his research team are going to announce that they have definitively identified fossilized organisms in meteorites from Mars that have been collected on earth.

Martian microorganisms.  Martians.  Real Martians.  That bubble of perception that life exists only here on Earth will have been burst.

The next step, of course, will be to design Mars missions to determine if any of those organisms have survived Mars’ harsh and extreme history in an environment in which only extremophiles (as we now know flourish on Earth) could survive.

That those first missions will be robotic is certain.  The opportunity that a human will ever reach down and pick up a rock from the surface of Mars that potentially carries evidence of life living or fossilized in this century, at least under the sponsorship of NASA, appears increasingly doubtful in the current political and geo-centric environment.

Although we may be witness to the extinction of the hominid drive to discover the undiscovered, life confirmed beyond the delicate bubble of rock, water and air from which we were formed, literally changes the very quantumization of life itself.  It is a change that cannot be undone. From the present into the future, what it means to be living, what it means to be human will be different.  For life, as we’ve always known it, no longer requires Earth.

Martian Metorite NAKHLA 2058. Possible Fossilized Life. Microscopy Photo: NASA

There is more, however.  All technical considerations aside, if and when this announcement comes, the theological implications, as well as our geo-centric Christology, will no longer be the topic of idle speculation but confront us with a reality that demands a response to the world.

Since 1543, when Copernicus’ De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the

Folio Pages Showing the Copernicus' Heliocentric Model. De Revolutionbus, 1543. Photo Courtesy fotosearch.com

Celestial Spheres), we have been attempting to unify our Christology with our Cosmology.  The results have been, in my opinion, at best, mixed.

Parable of the Sower, from the Plenarium or the Evangelical Book of the Year, 1516. Basel, Switzerland. Photo: Pitts Theology Library, Emory Univ.

The announcement of alien life, even microbial, requires a new conversation with a new set of rules.  It shall be a heady time, indeed.  Ours is the generation that broke the shackles of gravity and set off across the Solar System.  If, too, we are to be ones who confirm that life’s seed has been sown across the expanse of space like the Sower in one of Jesus’ parables, we have much work to do.

Here are three links:

http://spaceflightnow.com/news/n1001/09marslife/

http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2010/01/11/2169791.aspx

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/47114/proof-life-mars-come-year.html

Looking into the stars that seed the night will never be the same. Ever.